The key to reconciliation, even with Hamas, is the release of prisoners, and Israel today could safely release approximately a quarter to a third of the 4,500 Palestinian security prisoners behind bars in Israel, a former top security agency official told The Times of Israel.
“Out of the 4,500 we could release 1,000 tomorrow,” said Arie Livne, the former head of interrogations at the Shin Bet and the commander of the greater Gaza region during the Second Intifada.
Livne, known locally as “Leybo,” described the release of prisoners as “the best lever toward progress in negotiations,” and said, while looking at an unclassified website’s chart of Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israel, “the list can be analyzed. Who they are. What they did. We could let a third of them go.”
Livne, who seemed intimate with much of the Palestinian leadership and the nature of their prison sentences in Israel, said that the matter of prisoner releases cuts to the heart of the conflict. “Every single [Palestinian] family has a first-degree relative who did time,” he explained.
His comments were made before Avi Issacharoff revealed in The Times of Israel on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to free 50 Palestinian security prisoners who have been held since before the Oslo Accords in the mid-’90s in an attempt to restart peace talks with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas – who rejected the offer and is reportedly demanding that all 107 pre-Oslo prisoners be released, including those convicted of murder, before coming to the table.
Livne, currently a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, asserted that it is in Israel’s interest “to initiate [a prisoner release] and not to cave under pressure.” It is a well-known fact, he added, “that a resolution of the conflict will mean letting all of the prisoners go.”
He then corrected himself and said that perhaps several exceptions could be agreed upon.
A bear-like, convivial man, alternately eating jam off the blade of his knife long after his croissant was gone and showing pictures of his grandchildren on his cellphone, Livne spoke about the changes in the region and the way they have affected Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
He rejected the notion of Hamas seeing itself as a harbinger of the Arab Spring – i.e., an Islamist regime that overthrew its quasi-secular and fully corrupt predecessor in Gaza — and said that, at least for now, Hamas was prepared to reconcile with the PA. “In my opinion Hamas has adopted the PLO doctrine, the step-by-step system [a willingness to cut a deal now with the understanding that it is one stage in a larger campaign],” he said, noting that the organization needed time to build its strength and was therefore primed for resolving its feud with the PA and perhaps with Israel.
Addressing the international picture, he described “an essential change” in Hamas’s alliances and said that the rift in the Iran-Hezbollah-Damascus-Hamas pact – shattered by the Syrian civil war — and the new alliance with Egypt, Turkey and Qatar was “much better as far as Israel is concerned.”
Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, he said, is an Islamist who shares Hamas’s ideology but is “utterly dependent on the West,” and therefore when he demands quiet from Hamas “it is much more comfortable for Hamas to say ‘we are abiding by Egyptian requests,’ as though they were answering the call of a wider Islamist agenda.”
The new alliance also opened channels of communication that were hardly available in the past. “Practically speaking, we have an emergency channel,” he said. “Say there’s word of a planned abduction. Who did you talk to in the past? The US? Egypt? Today there is who to talk to.”
Those channels, he suggested, should now be used to float the idea of a mass prisoner release, perhaps jump-starting peace talks that even Hamas might agree to. “Reconciliation is possible at this point in time,” he said. “Will it last? That’s uncertain. But it’s possible.”